'Sources of Identity' Conference - Sheffield before 1600

image of manuscript fragmentIf you ask anyone about Sheffield’s history - including Sheffield’s own residents - they would describe its great industrial heritage: cutlery, steel, mining and engineering, principally in the 19th and 20th centuries. Ask anyone about its Tudor and medieval past, and you would be faced with shrugs and puzzled looks. However, Sheffield was the location of the fourth-largest castle in medieval England - Sheffield Castle; it was surrounded by one of the largest deer parks in the country (if not the largest) - Sheffield Park; and it was the site of Mary Queen of Scots’ prison - Sheffield Manor Lodge. These provide some promising starting points as we delve into the city’s earlier past.

From its early origins in Saxon and Norman times, Sheffield was a small market town situated on the banks of the rivers Don and Sheaf. Sheffield formed the centre of Hallamshire, a shire within the larger region of Yorkshire, which stretched from Doncaster in the East through to part of what is now the Peak District National Park in the West.

Earl Waltheof was the Anglo Saxon lord of the Manor of Sheffield at the time of the Norman invasion in 1066. He initially made peace with the new king William the Conqueror, but then took part in the Northern lords’ rebellion of 1069. William laid waste to the lands from York to Durham, but granted a pardon to all who laid down their arms – an opportunity of which Waltheof took advantage, apparently cementing his loyalty with a marriage to William’s niece, Judith. However, the earl then joined another rebellious plot, for which he lost his head in 1075.

Waltheof was succeeded by the first Norman dynasty to rule the manor of Sheffield. William de Lovetot built a wooden ‘Motte and Bailey’ castle in central Sheffield, very likely on the same spot as Waltheof’s Anglo Saxon hall. The site was at the confluence of the rivers Don and Sheaf, which flanked two sides of the castle; the remaining two sides were protected by a wide moat. The de Lovetots and their descendants were noted for their quiet rule, being peaceable, law abiding and religious, allowing the town to flourish.

The de Lovetot line lasted until 1198 when Lady Maud married Gerard de Furnival, member of a warlike and adventurous knightly family. It was under the de Furnivals that the castle now known from the archiological site under Sheffield’s Castle Market was built. In 1266, a barons’ uprising under the leadership of John D’Eyvill torched the town, destroying the existing wooden structures. Thomas de Furnival, the Lord of the Manor, then applied for permission to build a new stone castle on the site of the old one. The mighty Sheffield Castle was completed in 1270, at almost four acres in size one of the largest castles in the country. With a large moat and walls six feet thick, it took the largest cannon in England to overcome the castle during the English Civil War of the 17th century.

image of Sheffield CathedralThe de Furnivals obtained a market charter in 1296 for markets to be held on Tuesdays and a fair once a year, which made Sheffield a place of some dignity and importance. Their dynasty lasted until the death of William de Furnivals in 1383, at which point the manor passed through his daughter’s line to the famous soldier John Talbot, with whose family it would remain until 1616. Talbot had a long career as a senior English commander in France during the Hundred Years War, eventually meeting his end at the Battle of Castillon in 1453. In 1446, to reflect his great efforts, he was rewarded with the title Earl of Shrewsbury. During John’s tenure, around 1430, a new stone parish church was built in the Perpendicular style on the site of the previous wooden church; part of the 15th-century structure survives in what is now Sheffield Cathedral.

image of Bishops' house MuseumAnother well-connected family (although of lower status), the de Blythes, also owned land close to Sheffield. Towards the end of the fifteenth century the de Blythes enjoyed a moment of prominence in the church: William Blyth married a sister of the Archbishop of York, and his sons John and Geoffrey served as Bishop of Salisbury and Bishop of Lichfield and Coventry respectively – the latter also served Henry VII in a diplomatic capacity. The brothers’ generation of de Blythes, or perhaps the following one, built a small timber-framed manor house on a modest estate called Coltyard, which can now be visited as the Bishops’ House Museum.

The Talbots acquired considerable wealth, and by the time of the 4th Earl of Shrewsbury - George Talbot, one of the leading nobles under Henry VIII - it seemed appropriate to reflect the family’s status by building a new manor house. Sheffield Manor Lodge was located in the middle of the huge deer park, Sheffield Park, a mile away from the damp and dingy Sheffield Castle, which was now almost 300 years old. The park was eight miles in circumference, walled and fenced, boasting over 3,000 deer and some of the largest oak trees in the country. The Manor Lodge survives today in an attractively ruined state, and the family chapel established by George in 1520 can still be seen in Sheffield Cathedral. In the 1570s the Manor Lodge was considerably extended by the 6th Earl of Shrewsbury and his powerful wife, Bess of Hardwick, to provide suitable accommodation for the captive Mary Queen of Scots, who resided in Sheffield between the castle and the lodge for fourteen years.

The first census came just after 1600, at which point 2,200 persons were recorded as living in Sheffield. By that time, Sheffield was already on the way to dominance of the cutlery trade, which in the ensuing centuries would come to define its identity, bringing international connections and considerable wealth to the town.

David Templeman
Chair of the Friends of Sheffield Manor Lodge